Saving bees with sugar: Connecting with nature or 'a last resort'?

By Michael Baggs
Newsbeat reporter

Image source, Getty Images

If you see a bee crawling on the ground in the summer, there's a good chance that little guy is in trouble.

Bumblebees have such a high metabolism and are usually so busy, even one with a stomach full of nectar can be just 40 minutes away from starvation, according to Professor Dave Goulson.

Which is why people often feed bees with sugar water - to give them a boost so they can get on with their business.

This summer, a new device will be launched which means you can do that no matter where you are.

Norwich-based inventor Dan Harris has created "bee saviour" cards which put tiny amounts of potentially life-saving sugar solution in your wallet.

"When we heard about bees getting so exhausted so quickly, the fact that we can revive them with sugar solution just struck us as a really great opportunity to connect with nature - especially in a city," Dan tells Radio 1 Newsbeat.

The bee saviour cards are made from old credit cards and each have three refillable "cells" which contain solution for bees.

Image source, Bee Saviour Behaviour
Image caption,
Starving bees will gobble up sugar solution - but too much can be dangerous for them and their colony

Having recently hit his crowd-funding target, Dan hopes to have the £4 cards on sale online and, at first, in stores in Norwich from June this year.

But is it actually a good thing?

Giving sugar solution to bees isn't something recommended by Buglife, one of the UK's leading insect charities.

"Sugar solution should always be used as a last resort to help bees that look tired and exhausted as they are only able to give a quick hit," a spokesperson tells Newsbeat.

In 2018, a fake Facebook post recommending people leave large quantities of sugar solution in their gardens was shared millions of times.

"Worker bumblebees only live a few weeks so may be coming to the end of their life if you see them on the ground," they added.

Buglife says people should put tired bees onto flowers, where they may be able to find nectar which, unlike sugar solution, contains nutrients they need.

Sugar offers no nutrients to bees or humans, and a lack of protein can even lead to bees eating their own eggs to keep themselves going.

Image source, Bee Saviour Behaviour
Image caption,
Buglife says sugar solution should be a "last resort" for bees

Dan agrees with Buglife that bees' natural food is "fundamental".

But he also says that flowers will often have been drained of nectar by other bees, and that extra boost from the sugar solution could help them find what they need by themselves.

Dan's cards are designed to be used in urban areas where green spaces can be rare or change often - which can throw bees off track.

"The city council or whatever comes and mows the lawn and all the dandelion heads disappear or someone changes their garden," he says.

"If they've got a standard route around your neighbourhood one day, maybe the next day a huge patch of flowers they were feeding on has disappeared."

Bees can also be upset by a sudden change in temperature - they can't fly if it's colder than 12C.

And it might not be worth feeding bees you find late in the summer - when autumn comes, worker bees force all the drones out of the hive to starve to death, so feeding them could just prolong their suffering.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Honey bees have a good reputation but their lives are short and their society can be cruel

Bees play an important role in pollinating flowers and plants - including our food - and their decline due to changing temperatures and pesticides has been well documented.

But Dan says insects like bees and butterflies are ones we "feel warmly towards". He hopes this interest could result in a wider conversation about the impact the decline is having on less appealing insects too.

What about wasps?

Spreading some love for ugly bugs is something author M.G. Leonard has been doing since her novel Beetle Boy was published in 2016.

"We see them as either pollinators, like bees who pollinate flowers and make honey for us, or we see them as pests and think they should all be exterminated," Maya tells Newsbeat.

"They're all in a big ecosystem and they all do beneficial jobs. The way we look at them is problematic."

She says we should be more tolerant of wasps who pollinate flowers and, as a predatory insect, help control numbers of other insects like flies - which also play an important role in breaking down rotting matter.

For Maya, a wasp sting is no more painful than a cat scratch - something we're all much more willing to put up with.

And if it wasn't for a certain type of midge, which is the only insect that pollinates the cocoa plant, chocolate would have to be produced artificially.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Could you learn to love a wasp? They play an important part of the insect ecosystem but also - ewwww

Once phobic of all insects, Maya recommends encouraging insects of all kinds into our lives.

"Treat your garden or your outside spaces like an insect zoo, and you're the zookeeper," she says.

"Maybe have a bit of a meadow and a wilder garden than a really manicured and ornamental patch.

"Small things like that can really help populations of insects just outside your back door."

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